Comradely Objects is every bit as mathematical as it is melodic, and as already covered artfully here at AD by Brent Sirota, it is arguably the crowning achievement of the Horse Lords cannon. Fresh on the heels of their latest release, we caught up with guitarist Owen Gardner and bassist Max Eilbacher to discuss recording in lockdown, relocating to Germany, weaponizing the avant-garde, Cornelius Cardew, and what happens when lyrics fail. | n lekas
Aquarium Drunkard: Expressionism, the secessionist movement, legacy avant-garde artistic hubs, the American exodus to cities like Berlin certainly carries 100+ years of musical significance; did any of that nostalgia play into your decision to relocate?
Max Eilbacher: No, I would say there is no nostalgia, it is direct reality because we’ve always done better there. It’s just going where the work is.
Owen Gardner: If there is any nostalgia at all it is a nostalgia for like an American welfare state, or American arts funding. I mean yes, I know what you’re talking about, it is interesting to imagine yourself inserted into this history of Americans doing the same thing.
Max Eilbacher: These cities are so strong in their artistic communities, it’s an interesting mix of funding and the history of them, but for me personally it’s now. I know it exists because of a past but I’m not looking for 90’s Berlin to insert myself into.
Owen Gardner: And what’s shocking as an American is that there has been continuous support of the arts the entire time. It didn’t stop. Gertrude Stein wasn’t the last experimental poet in Europe. They’re still throwing unbelievable amounts of money at experimental poetry and stuff. It’s less than it used to be, but it’s still unimaginable from an American perspective.
AD: I know I’ve found European outlets generally more interested in poetry.
Owen Gardner: I don’t think that’s a coincidence—like you can hear contemporary classical music on the radio, you know? Avant-garde music is not removed from people’s life.
Max Eilbacher: I mean avant-garde music is even weaponized—or was weaponized—against the homeless here in the past year or two. I was in the U-Bahn station a few weeks ago and they were playing horrible new age music, and I was like it’s bizarre they are playing new age music at like two in the morning, and then someone explained that they kind of did this because of this public reaction, because they did this stunt where they were playing Stockhausen in the U-Bahn station to stop people from sleeping there. As protest a lot of musicians wouldn’t perform modern contemporary new music in the subway station and the powers that be were like, “Oh this is bad, let’s play nice music now.” When someone was explaining this to me, I thought they were fucking with me, like wait you’re telling me some government bureaucrat decided we’re gonna play Stockhausen through the PA system to stop homeless people, that’s how ingrained this cannon of avant-garde is in Eurpoe? [Editor’s note: A portion of proceeds from Comradely Objects benefit CASA, a national organization dedicated fighting for the rights of all immigrant and working-class people.]
AD: The European government is pulling deep cuts, only B-sides in the fight for order.
Max Eilbacher: Yeah.
AD: Comradely Objects is the first album you haven’t road tested before recording, how did that influence the process?
Max Eilbacher: From my experience it’s just new parameters. I’m used to going in the studio and playing a part because that’s the part we’ve been doing live—anywhere from two months to three years. There was definitely moments on this album when I was playing parts and going, I don’t know if this part works. I’m throwing a lot against the wall right now. We’ve never really done this as a band of 12 years. From my end it wasn’t a hindrance, but also that was our only option. We were using the tools we had and the parameters that the world set at the moment.
Owen Gardner: I mean this was also one of the first records where we had no new material, or no old material going into it. Like, we had to start fresh anyway, so we came up with everything in the past two years—which is pretty unusual for us. There was a mix of improvisatory approaches but also more formalistic approaches, which yield kind of compositionally simpler results.
AD: Did the writing process still start the same way? Is it a guitar part or a drum rhythm, how does a Horse Lords song start?
Owen Gardner: It’s never anything particular. It’s usually one small thing, but in some cases like, Plain Hunt on Four, it was finished as soon as it was started.
Max Eilbacher: The compositional idea is a through line of change ringing for bell players, it’s a very technically complex way of playing bells in a group. It’s one of those patterns applied to the saxophone, guitar, and bass, and so that compositional idea is the blueprint for it and therefore the outcome of it. Rundling is a similar system, it’s a way of counting. Rundling took a lot more refining, we created this counting out rhythm and then we listened to it and cut out parts that we liked and learned to play that and arranged it that way, so you have these similar systems but then the way in which they are edited and refined is very different.
Owen Gardner: It’s a similar generative process.
AD: There is an interesting connection between the utilitarian nature of the politics and constructivist ideas inherent to Comradely Object. Instrumental music isn’t generally considered particularly utilitarian in form—although the lack of voice creates a certain egalitarian relationship between instruments. How much do these kinds of concepts fuel your writing? Or is it inherent to the process at this point?
Max Eilbacher: We all come from experimental and avant practices, so I think inherent to the practices are these concerns. I think when we meet as Horse Lords and work together, we’re not always talking about that, maybe not on the nose but I think inherently its part of it without a doubt—how we work with sound and how we layer sound.
Owen Gardner: I would say both things are true. It’s something we think about and at the same time it’s something we don’t talk about. It’s not explicit, like the song titles are not like, we’re not sitting down like ok how do we convey Zero Degree Machine through sound? Or how do we talk about solidarity? It’s not the sort of one to one. But it was interesting what you said about the utility of instrumental music, I feel like precisely what is politically loaded to me about it is its non-utility. That you can’t attach anything to it… It can be totally blank in a disturbing way too I guess.
Max Eilbacher: Yeah, the music at casinos isn’t telling you to put more money in, it’s using another system of music and another system of linguistics to have you do that. For me, the utilitarianism of it is in how the music in placed within one’s use, whether it’s a club, you’re watching dishes, you’re driving around for your work or you’re relaxing at home, I think for me that’s where the utilitarianism comes in, but I think it probably differs for everything in the band.
Owen Gardner: Yeah, I think I would downplay the utilitarian character of the Comradely Objects for the comradely character, that these are liberated objects for liberated people and that they are not bound by capitalist relationship, that this is not a consumer object, you’re not being compelled to buy anything or to think anything.
Max Eilbacher: Yeah, we’re not compelling you to buy this, we just hope you do. [Laughs]
AD: There is something about instrumental music and creating space to wander. I’ve probably listened to more instrumental music in the last three years during the pandemic than in my whole life prior. Many jazz musicians would argue that the very act of playing jazz in political, but there are still ideas that political music is lyrical.
Owen Gardner: You think about Cornelius Cardew who was writing this radical music and suddenly he reached the point with radical political where he thought, “No, I have to make like weird pop music with lyrics.” He thought this is the people’s music, but it was insane.
Max Eilbacher: Nobody wants this.
Owen Gardner: You were much better off with Treatise dude. We were actually thinking about calling the record People’s Music to sort of ironically deal with this point, that people’s music is a kind of dream. It’s like a dragon that everybody is trying to chase. It just doesn’t make any sense. I feel like language is not the way to get there. Music is not going to break bricks. It doesn’t do the things that politically need to happen, so you know, lyrics don’t get you closer. Like fucking what’s his name? Paul Ryan listens to Rage Against the Machine to get excited about privatizing social security you know?
Max Eilbacher: Tucker Carlson and who’s that horrible woman? [Another editor’s note: The horrible woman in question here is Ann Coulter.] They’re big Deadheads. And that’s an interesting thing too, cause, maybe that’s a counter argument, like what is the role of instrumental music when lyrics fail?
Owen Gardner: The struggle keeps it interesting because it’s not a sure thing that it will be successful, like maybe this record will be a hit with right-wingers? I don’t know. There really is nothing actually preventing that. Those sort of impossible dreams are part of what makes it…
Max Eilbacher: …That’s what makes it appealing.